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Leadership development: why most programmes rarely work

Published 23rd February 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Female leader climbing stairs

In 2014, HR analyst Josh Bersin said that of the $130bn spent on corporate training across the world that year, leadership development took almost 35% of the total pot.

It’s an astounding figure and indicative of the pressing global need to plug leadership capability gaps, develop millennial leaders and develop better succession planning strategies.

So with almost $50bn going to leadership development, you’d think we’d have some pretty damn good leaders, and yet we increasingly hear that the state of global leadership is in a poor place.

Why is leadership development failing?

It’s really training in disguise

How does training differ from development? Mike Myatt from Forbes says that “training presumes the need for indoctrination on systems, processes and techniques” and it “assumes that said systems, processes and techniques are the right way to do things.”

When leadership development is really training, we give leaders things that may have worked before, for certain people, in certain contexts, at a certain point in time, but we do not help them develop themselves to be able to become effective at specific points in the future that will not resemble the past.

It overlooks the context of success

Boris Groysberg from Harvard Business School found that Wall Street analysts rated as “stars” by an independent agency did not perform as well or maintain their status following a move to another firm.

What this research suggests is that success in one context does not necessarily require the same skills, mindset, attitude and knowledge as success in another context.

When development focuses on specific frameworks, ideas or norms, as it often does, it generalises and ignores the fact that leaders must be able to hone and adapt their style in order to succeed when the context changes.

It’s no surprise that an increasing amount of research suggests adaptable leadership [PDF] as a critical model for leadership success going forwards.

It overestimates the power of individuals to change systems

In an article on Harvard Business Review, three co-founders of TruePoint Partners highlight that many organisations fail to see the place of the system in successful change.

They argue that if “the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behaviour change - indeed, it will set people up to fail.”

Leaders are often see as having more power than most to change systems and the “way things are done around here,” but we must remember culture and success are emergent properties of the interaction of all elements of the system (including employees, workplaces, leaders, roles, responsibilities) and that leaders are not all-powerful when it comes to shifting established norms.

It offers space for theoretical reflection but little ‘wargaming’

Leadership is often mission-critical, such as deciding what products to launch, how to embark on culture development, or who to hire to replace senior executives - when the stakes are high, it’s hard to re-imagine these scenarios as learning environments.

That’s why so much leadership development takes place off-site, which is great for giving leaders a chance to self-reflect and learn new ideas, but not for practicing new strategies in the real-world.

This means leadership development suffers from the perpetual frustrations of the learning world - the forgetting curve and the difficulty in applying new learnings to real-world situations.

It fails to perform any sort of root cause analysis

You may be familiar with the 5 Whys programme used in Toyota to establish the root cause of a particular problem. The thinking behind it is simple: if a manufacturing problem is misidentified, money will be spent on fixing a symptom rather than a cause, and the problem will persist.

Leadership development is often designed to encourage leaders to develop specific behaviours: for example, senior management may think that line managers don’t have the necessary skills to delegate, and put them on a delegation course. But perhaps they don’t trust their staff enough, or they are perfectionists, rather than lacking skills.